In 2012, Consumer Reports caused a stir when it released a report showing that many rice products, including food for infants and children, contained high levels of arsenic.
Arsenic is a semi-metallic chemical found in water, soil, and some foods. It comes in two forms: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is the lesser of the two evils in terms of toxicity, while inorganic arsenic is truly dangerous. Total arsenic (both organic and inorganic arsenic) levels are something to watch for, too.
Inorganic arsenic is a human carcinogen that has been linked to the development of lung, bladder, and skin cancers, as well as other medical conditions. There are also studies that link it to lower IQ scores and reduced long-term memory in children.
The standard limit of arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb (parts per billion). There are currently no set limits for food, but we do know that long-term exposure to arsenic is linked to long-term health problems.
How does arsenic get into rice?
Because arsenic is found in soil and water, plants absorb it through their root system. You can find levels of arsenic in fruits, vegetables, and rice. Low levels, especially of organic arsenic, have been regarded as safe.
Rice, however, may be an exception to this belief. Grown in water-flooded conditions, rice is more receptive and apt to absorb arsenic into its roots.
Also, for decades, arsenic-containing insecticides were used to control pests from destroying crops. Animal feed still contains arsenic to prevent disease and promote growth. And fertilizer made from animal waste can contain inorganic arsenic and contaminate crop soil.
In the South, where the majority of our nation’s rice is sourced (76 percent), cotton farmers used arsenic-containing pesticides decades ago, and some of it still remains in the soil.
Why the concern?
In the Consumer Reports release, the group reviewed a sweeping variety of foods (223 items), including baby cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice milk, rice cakes and crackers, and gluten-free products made with rice, looking at the content of arsenic in these products.
The group found that a quarter cup of uncooked white rice ranged from roughly 1 microgram to 7 micrograms (mcg) of inorganic arsenic, while brown rice ranged from 4 mcg to 10 mcg. (Brown rice tends to have more arsenic because the metal concentrates in the bran). Rice cakes ranged from 2-8 mcg per serving, while hot and ready-to-eat rice cereals ranged from 2-7 mcg. Basmati rice had the lowest levels of arsenic.
More recently, Consumer Reports looked at the FDA data released in 2013, which included measurements of inorganic arsenic content from 656 processed rice-containing products. The group found that rice cereal and rice pasta had much more inorganic arsenic than the 2012 data showed. According to the new data set, one serving of rice cereal or rice pasta could put kids over the maximum amount of arsenic recommended per week. Rice cakes supply close to a child’s weekly limit in one serving. Rice drinks can also be high in arsenic, and children younger than 5 shouldn’t drink them in lieu of milk.
Despite the new findings, Consumer Reports did not change its advice for infants and young children:
- Babies: Eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average.
- Include and rotate iron-fortified infant cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits (low levels of arsenic).
- Children under the age of 5: Avoid rice drinks as part of a daily diet (high levels of arsenic per serving).
Consumer Reports pointed out that about half of the arsenic in your rice can be removed by rinsing it and cooking it in six parts water to one part rice until it reaches eating texture, then pouring off the extra water.
Where the FDA stands
There is still no federal limit for arsenic in rice and rice products. According to Consumer Reports, “The FDA’s ongoing assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority for the agency. Last year, the FDA released what we believe to be the largest set of test results to date on the presence of arsenic in rice and rice products, and we are planning to release a draft assessment of the potential health risks associated with the consumption of arsenic in these same foods.”
The FDA reiterated its recommendation that everyone, including pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, should eat a variety of grains. The agency also suggested that parents should “consider options other than rice cereal for a child’s first solid food.”
- Choose a variety of other grain-based cereals with iron fortification to meet baby’s nutritional needs.
- Use pureed meat as a first food to make sure your breastfed baby is getting adequate iron.
- Scale back on other rice-containing foods, such as rice cakes.